As a young child, Caitlin Dunahee would often go across the hallway into her older brother’s room to play with his assortment of toys.
His room in the family’s new home had a dark brown captain’s bed with drawers on the bottom filled with toy cars and Lego. Her brother, however, had never been in the room.
Caitlin was six months old when her four-year-old brother Michael disappeared from the playground of the former Blanshard Elementary School shortly after noon on March 24, 1991. His mother, Crystal was tying her cleats in preparation for a flag football game at the field while his father Bruce was standing metres away, checking the score of a previous game.
Michael headed to a nearby playground within view of his parents, but when Bruce looked over his son was gone. The flag football game immediately ground to a halt as players scoured the area. Michael is still missing after 25 years.
“I always knew I had a brother that wasn’t there. He was in the pictures everywhere around the house,” said Caitlin. “Every day I would leave my room and would see his stuff, his room and just wonder.”
Growing up, Caitlin never realized there was anything different about her family until elementary school. Her peers started asking questions about her missing brother and sometimes she’d appear in the media when her parents pleaded for tips.
Whenever Caitlin went to a friend’s house down the street, her mother would stand outside watching, then have her phone when she arrived. She also noticed that her curfew was a lot earlier than the rest her friends.
As Caitlin got older, people began recognizing her as the sister of the missing boy who’s pictures were splashed across the news. It made her uncomfortable, prompting her to stay out of the lime light and hold onto her own identity as long as she possibly could.
Looking back, Caitlin has a lot of good childhood memories, with her mother doing everything she could to make her happy during such an emotional time.
But as she got older, Caitlin began to speculate what happened and wondered what it would be like if Michael ever came back home.
“I feel like she (mother) poured everything she had into me, but just kind of always being in that shadow, I knew there was something else on their mind,” she said. “There was always this other thing looming over me and knowing that there was an older brother that wasn’t there, who was on my parents mind, not just me, it was weird.”
On the afternoon Michael disappeared, police swarmed the area to search for the young boy last seen wearing a blue-hooded jacket with red lining and red cuffs, a teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt, multi-coloured rugby pants and blue sneakers.
Given his background with major files, Victoria police Insp. Keith Lindner was brought in from patrol to help with the investigation. Police were overwhelmed with the amount of information they were trying to process.
It was organized mayhem, Lindner recalled, with dozens of determined officers searching for any trace of Michael’s whereabouts.
“I got a little corner with a phone and tried to focus on doing what I was tasked to do,” said Lindner, who was assigned to follow up on a tip about a possible brown van involved in Michael’s disappearance, but it didn’t go anywhere.
“You can’t let stuff frustrate you...I got a stack of tips and I went through them all, logged them and followed up what I could.”
As the months turned into a year, Lindner struggled to grasp how a child could vanish without a trace from the safe and sleepy City of Victoria. He also had become a parent himself, bringing more emotion to the investigation.
These days Lindner is in charge of the division that holds the file, which he maintains is still active and open, receiving tips especially whenever another anniversary rolls around. But the hunt continues to find a definitive answer of what happened to Michael. It’s a question that’s haunted detectives who’ve worked on the case for years.
“We’re making progress because we’ve been able to eliminate a lot of things that didn’t happen...I think we’re moving forward,” said Lindner, noting the investigation is the most complex he’s ever been involved with in 30 years, and the only unsolved case in Victoria involving a child.
“It is heartbreaking we can’t go to Crystal and Bruce and give them answers about their son. But when you talk about the resilience that they’ve shown, I have the utmost respect. I can’t imagine going through that as a parent.”
Although 25 years has passed, the family remains hopeful Michael is still alive and one day they will know what happened to the little boy with blue-eyes and dirty blonde hair.
On a weekly basis, Caitlin still thinks about the brother who would have turned 30 this May. She runs a Facebook page in memory of Michael, sharing tributes and posting information about annual events. The page has now reached more than 7,000 people. The more people that know Michael’s story, the closer the family feels towards finding closure.
“The last 25 years of my parents’ life have been destroyed. I want it to be solved and I want justice for what happened,” said Caitlin.
“I think my mom has been able to put her thoughts aside. She’s been able to clear her mind of it and continue moving forward with life. She hasn’t forgotten, that’s for sure, but she’s been able to push through it. My dad has struggled pushing his thoughts aside and wears his heart on his sleeve. I can see his pain.”
The Michael Dunahee Keep the Hope Alive Drive 2016 Dance will take place Friday, April 1 at the Esquimalt Curling Rink. The event is being named The Last Dance, as this will be the final year it’s hosted. The annual walk/run takes place on Sunday, April 3. All proceeds go to Child Find B.C. An anniversary mass will also take place March 23 at 12:10 p.m. at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church.
Anyone with information about Michael’s disappearance is asked to call 250-995-7261 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).